Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The State Legislature Studies High-Speed Rail: Much Ado about Nothing

Last night, in Mountain View, there was a Legislative meeting led by State Senator Joe Simitian. It was about high-speed rail and a discussion about what had happened since the last meeting they had a number of months ago.  Had anything been fixed by the rail authority from all the points for which they had been roundly criticized previously? If the answer was yes, we actually didn't hear that.

There are many articles about this meeting held by State Senators Simitian, with Lowenthal, DeSaulnier and Correa on a Senate sub-committee responsible for funding high-speed rail.

What these articles (and numerous others) intimate, but not say, is that all the talk we heard last night are cover-up cosmetics that are sold for "blemished skin" on television. We are expected to believe that what they are going to do now is so much better than what they had intended to do. New and improved. Costs less; does more. Buy one, get one free.

Having some funding in hand, as it were, they want to spend it soonest. Let's wink and call that "early investment." And, we learn, let's spread it around the state where most of the voters live.

Since they don't have enough funding to actually build what will eventually cost far more than $20 billion; that is, a four-track elevated viaduct on the Caltrain Peninsula, they are agreeing to a "blended system." 

Doesn't that sound good? How can anything that's "blended" be bad? "Blended" means, actually, that high-speed rail gets a virtual foothold on the Caltrain corridor without spending many billions. Of course, what nobody admits is that whenever there will be more billions from Washington, they will dig out their dusty plans for a four track elevated viaduct, and will tell us that this is what they always had in mind.

Get this. It's so sneaky you have to admire their Chutzpah. 

  • They say that they will use the existing two tracks now shared by Caltrain and UPRR freights.  
  • They will run only a few daily HSR trains on those tracks. No evil side effects, like construction!
  • Actually, at first they won't run any trains on the corridor. 
  • At first, they will stop their HSR train in San Jose.  People will get out of HSR trains and get on board Caltrain to get to SF.  Of course, that's only temporary.  (Everything they intend to do is only temporary until it becomes permanent.)
  • Although, actually, they don't have money to build their train from the Central Valley to San Jose.  
  • But, they will provide electrification for Caltrain's commuter trains thereby getting ready to use those same two tracks for their high-speed trains. 
  • Which, at first, can only go between SF and SJ. 
  • In addition, if they do run high-speed trains on those same tracks, they will need to build passing tracks in a number of places, including all the Caltrain stations for HSR trains to pass at those stations, since they won't stop there. They don't have money to do that. 
  • Are you dizzy yet? 

Can you see why this entire project has been called political pork and a scam?  Little kids playing with Lego blocks can plan better than this.

Here are some of my impressions and thoughts after the meeting:

1. It's about the money.  They can talk trains all they want but clearly, the purpose of their intentions, Peer Review Group Chairman Will Kempton a good example, is to spring the dollars from both the feds. and the state bond funds to be spent in their respective neck of the woods.  Kempton, Chairman of the Peer Review Group, reeking of conflict-of-interest, was aggressively promoting the funding of new rail services into the LA Basin.  Kempton's day job is CEO of the Orange Country Transit Authority. 

2. The basic argument is that everyone now knows that there won't be more federal funding for the foreseeable future.  Therefore, they have to make do with what they have on hand.  

They keep talking about having over $13 billion.  That's nonsense, of course, since they don't "have" anymore of the $9 billion for HSR than they can match with other funds. So what they have at most is the matching of the $3.5 billion from the FRA.  That's a grand total of $7 billion. Most of this has to be spent in the Central Valley by federal DOT/FRA decree. They know they will lose the federal funds if they don't comply.

Have I mentioned yet they during their discussion, the subject of how to pay for a high-speed rail system in California came up?  The current asking price is $117 billion, but Dan Richard assured us, since the Governor did the math., that it won't cost anything like that.

They will save gobs of money using second-hand rail corridors in the population centers.
Their new business plan will give us new cost forecasts. I know that we're going to be delighted with the new numbers.  Oddly enough, no one knew where those dollars were going to come from.  I suppose that doesn't really matter. 

3. The CEO of the CHSRA, Dan Richard, was asked by Lowenthal to get the Governor to call the President to see if he could be more flexible with the awarded ARRA stimulus funds of $3.5 billion.  What that means required an explanation that they spent some time on in their discussions. 
  • Spending all the available funding in the Central Valley to build 130 miles of rail track covers a lot of ground, but won't carry many people since most Californians live either in the Bay Area or in the LA Basin.
  • That means trying to get additional funds to be spent in the two population centers where the people (who vote) live and work.
  • That means putting funds into upgrading urban and regional public mass transit, which by itself is not high-speed rail. Although, it the train is actually ever built, those segments will be the "book-ends" of the north-south HSR system.
  • You can't spend government funds on high-speed rail if it isn't high-speed rail, if you see what I mean. The solution, of course, is to call anything you want to spend money on, "high-speed rail." Problem solved!

4. What all this means is that, without further funding, there is an attempt by regional and local transportation agencies to get their hands on some of those billions before they are all consumed elsewhere. 

5. The federal government persists in insisting that the funds be spent in the Central Valley, since that's the connector to what they were told California needs to build, a link between two major urban centers.  

The Legislative Analysts' Office representatives last night mentioned that while the population centers had urban/regional public mass transit crises, the inter-city transit capacity was underutilized. No one on that stage at any time asked the question: "Why in hell are we building this train?"

Yet, although not needed and promising to be useless, that's what the rail authority proposed to the government, and that's why they got the funds.  They can't now go back to the government, still ask for those same funds, but change their minds about their intentions; that is, build out the regional commuter carriers as pre-cursers to future high-speed rail development.

6. Confused yet? If you are, that's partially intentional.  The various interests involved with this project, the rail authority and the legislators, are improvising by seeking to spread the six or seven available billions around the state, with at least some in the two major population centers for their urban and regional commuter rail.  In order to do that, there is a lot of twisting of language to fit the new scenarios.  Oh, yes, they will tell you, it's all about high-speed rail.  

7. What would you do if you couldn't buy an expensive car because you don't have the money?  Why, you would buy it part by part. First the motor, then the wheels. Then, maybe, the doors.  And so on.  Eventually, you would end up with a complete car. And, in any case, even if you never did end up with a complete car, you would have enough parts to make something usable out of those components.  Sound silly? Well, that's exactly what the rail authority is proposing.

8. Why is that, you are probably wondering.  Because this vast effort is not really about building a comprehensive rail system, regardless of what they want us to believe.  It's about politicians and the legislature getting their hands on the money available and then scavenging to find more.  They said so as much at last night's meeting.  Richard said they can't build it all at once. They will break the project up and build a little bit here and a little bit there.

They are doing whatever they can to remain eligible for the release of $2.7 billion from the Prop. 1A bond funds and the federal funding.  That's up to the Legislature, or more precisely, Simitian and Lowenthal.  My judgement is that they will do just that.

So, my over-arching impression is that we are going to get a lot of harm and damage stuffed down our collective throats in California. We will be required to pay for it, but we don't have any idea what that actually will be.

Thank you, Governor Jerry Brown and your happy band of old white guys in suits. You're going to take your Californians for the ride of their lives, well into the distant future. 

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